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Spielberg spins the tale of the prisoner of Paris airport

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French press review

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Spielberg spins the tale of the prisoner of Paris airport

Amelia Gentleman
Tuesday July 27, 2004
The Guardian


Merhan Karimi Nasseri is not sure whether he will manage to attend the Paris premiere of Steven Spielberg's latest film, The Terminal, which was inspired by his life. If he abandons the corner of Charles de Gaulle airport where he has lived for the past 16 years for long enough to travel into the capital for the ceremony, airport security will blow up his belongings.

Instead, he has the consolation of around $300,000, (£163,000) which was recently paid by Spielberg's Dreamworks production company into the account he holds in the airport post office, a few steps away from the red plastic bench which has served as his home since 1988.

He will earn further royalties as payment for allowing his extraordinary life as a long-term stateless refugee to be reworked as fiction, if the film, which comes out in Britain in September, is a success.

But despite his windfall, Mr Nasseri says: "I don't spend more than few euros a day. I eat breakfast in McDonald's and buy a few newspapers. I'm saving the rest for when I leave here."

Mr Nasseri, who insists on being called Sir Alfred Merhan, hopes that the movie will draw attention to his plight, but he may have trouble recognising his story in the predictably saccharine-coated Hollywood version, which stars Tom Hanks and has Catherine Zeta-Jones as the air hostess love interest.

Mr Nasseri first made his home at the airport in August 1988. Still paperless and very muddled, he refuses to leave, even though his lawyers have a solution to the legal and bureaucratic tangle.

"It's a sort of marginal life I lead," he said yesterday. "Not many people speak to me. Sometimes I go for a month without talking to anyone."

The precise details of his life remain unclear: even his age, believed to be 59, is not confirmed, and as he becomes more mentally frail, his version of the facts has shifted dramatically. Probably born in 1945 in Iran, Mr Nasseri was educated at Bradford University, and participated in protests against the shah in the 1970s, which led to his expulsion from Iran when he returned in 1976.

It seems Britain refused him political asylum; the fact that his mother was Scottish made no difference to his case. He was imprisoned in Belgium for four months in 1988 as an illegal immigrant after his refugee papers were stolen, before being taken to the Paris airport for expulsion to Iran. Fearing possible persecution, he declared himself stateless, and has remained in the terminal ever since.

Two airport trolleys mark out his patch of space. Three suits, packed in plastic dry-cleaning bags, hang from one. Lufthansa cardboard boxes, filled with personal belongings, are piled up on the other, next to a jumble of suitcases and plastic bags. Towels are draped out to dry behind the bench, which backs on to a specular vista of the airport's internal courtyard.

Armed airport guards pace past but pay him no attention. He is constantly tired because in order to sleep he has to curve his body at an uncomfortable angle in line with the crescent shape of his bench; he uses earplugs to block out the incessant public announcements.

Despite the difficulties, he is fastidiously clean and looks much like any other air traveller. His Lacoste jacket was bought in the shop opposite, where the staff occasionally wash his clothes for him.

He gets up at 5am to wash in the public toilets. "If I go later, it's crowded with tourists and not very private," he said.

He spends the day listening to the radio, reading books (this week he started on Bill Clinton's life) and writing his diary, which is being turned into an autobiography by an English ghostwriter. He receives post from travellers who have tried to befriend him and he takes the occasional phone call in the shops nearby.

It is not clear whether he ever will leave. In 1999, the French authorities granted him a temporary residency permit and a refugee's passport, giving him a way out. But he refused to sign the necessary papers, contesting his surname and that he was born in Iran.

"This was when I realised he had lost his grip on reality," Christian Bourguet, the lawyer who championed his case, said. "He can't do anything until he signs the papers, and he won't."

In the pharmacy opposite, Martin Youenang, who has observed Mr Nasseri for 10 years, said he would need psychiatric support to return to society. "He is a very solitary man, who has grown accustomed to his life here.

"It would take a lot of courage to leave and I'm not sure how he would cope in the real world."


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